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Internet—The Transition of Everything from Atoms to Bits

By Walt Wilson
November 2008

We are the first generation in all of human history to hold in our hands the technology to reach every man, woman, and child on earth. Although the product price points are not yet in place, this is not a distant dream. It is a current reality. Market forces in technology are driving us forward.

Perhaps the place to begin is an understanding that the Internet—the world of bits—is a real place, just like any physical place constructed of atoms. It cannot be ignored since it is inhabited by over one billion human beings in every country on earth. It has grown by about one million people every day. They communicate, buy and sell, socialize, obtain knowledge, get directions, seek medical answers, buy products, and even look for God on the Internet. They live in the world of cyberspace so much so that they no longer view the Internet, the smart phone, or their laptop as a technology. They view it as an ordinary, everyday tool.

It’s not one or the other. Bits or atoms. It’s now both; but for many, the transition takes some time. In the early 1990s corporate CEOs responded by saying, “Yes, we have an Internet site. We’re in the world of cyberspace.” But did they really leverage the power of bits? Did they really understand? No. Did they acquire new customers, increase revenue, improve distribution, collaborate with suppliers, communicate internally, or make process faster, better, and cheaper? No. They viewed it as a technology—bits—that did not integrate into their world of atoms. So they left it to the eggheads and went about business as usual.

Dismissing emerging technologies left space for new competitors and alternate channels for consumers looking for a better deal. Amazon sold books at a fraction of the cost the brick-and-mortar retailers were asking. Buyers went to Internet sites like Edmunds instead of to dealers to get the real story on automobile pricing. People wanted answers they could trust and slowly authority began to swing toward Google and other sources on the Internet. The car salesman in the yellow plaid jacket who sometimes colored the truth was now history. eBay created the biggest flea market in the world. Politicians circumvented the media by running their own blogs and raising millions of dollars over a weekend on the Internet. Authority and learning has shifted to the Internet.

Although certain products of atoms will never be replaced by bits, they are becoming eclipsed by bits. The average automobile contains about $800USD in steel, but over $2,000USD in computer chips containing information, and we are still in the early stages of integrating bits into cars. The typical smart phone has little more than a few dollars invested in atoms, but the bits drive all of the functionality and the greater cost.

The business term to describe the shift from atoms to bits is called radical discontinuity. Basically, it is change that happens so fast that we don’t know how to describe it or even forecast it. It would be a huge mistake to think the Church is immune to this development. It is not. Many seekers across the world have shifted to information on the Internet instead of going to a place called church. People are looking for God in the world of bits, not atoms. The Internet is now becoming the funnel into the church. If you are not using the Internet to conduct real ministry, then you don’t exist to the current generation of seekers—two million daily!

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Walt Wilson is founder and chairman of Global Media Outreach, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International. A retired Silicon Valley businessman, he was a sales manager at Fairchild Semiconductor, a start up executive at Apple Computer, finishing his career as a senior vice president with Computer Sciences Corp., managing business development in Asia.